Learning to Say Goodbye - By Patrick Regan
Over the last couple of years, I have experienced grief in various forms and through a series of “goodbyes”: London, a place I loved, XLP, a charity I started and worked with for 22 years, and now my nan, one of my favourite people to walk this earth. Again, I wrestle with my thoughts and ponder on what it really means…
My nan was a precious soul. Alzheimer’s disease took her mind years ago and as a family, we have had to witness this beautiful lady slowly get worse over time. Seeing her memory deteriorate to the point of not remembering who we are has been a painful experience, and especially so for my dad. Watching this amazing lady no longer react to what was going on around her, seeing her void of emotions when faced with what once brought her pure joy, has been really tough.
We could argue that the person we knew and loved had already left us ten years ago in some ways. Yet, there she was in front of us, a body and a face and every now and then, there was an odd smile, a word… My nan had the funniest laugh, yet I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard it. My dad often said she may have forgotten who we were, but we knew who she was, and it was important we visited her even if and when she didn’t seem to notice we were there.
When you look into the eyes of someone you know is dying, you become strangely aware of the pain you are carrying. It is the pain of lost relationships, the pain triggered by traumatic events you didn’t expect or didn’t think you would experience. Nevertheless, life brought them on and you have had no choice but to endure the undesirable feelings that come with those. You are never given a choice as to whether you wanted this to happen or not, and so the only thing you can do is cope with these feelings and emotions by accepting them and recognising that while unpleasant, their impact on you and your state of being is natural, and a normal process we cannot escape from. That process is called grief. You can try to suppress it, but you will only be putting up a front; deep within, the impact these difficult life events have on you cannot be denied.
Having been a Christian all my life, I cannot help but think about the classic advice given by many of my Christian friends in those moments: “Give your pain to God,” as if I had not thought of that or even tried. While well-meant, we need to recognise that calling upon God in those moments will not make us forget what happened and minimise the pain we are experiencing. We must also accept that wounds take a long time to heal. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist and pioneer in near-death studies and author of the groundbreaking book On Death and Dying (Routledge), identified the following five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Surely, going through all the first four stages of grief before reaching the final stage of acceptance cannot happen instantly. While I am conscious of God’s power to heal over time, I am also realistic and accept that there are no quick fixes in those moments. My solace is that I am not suffering alone. God, rather than removing me from the pain which I am experiencing, something I sometimes wish he did, joins me and suffers with me.
Increasingly, I have come to realise that pain is intricately linked to love, and while love is not a refuge from pain, pain can’t keep love at bay. Love is always there in the same way that God is always there. In fact, the famous Bible verse in 1 John 4:8 reads “God is love” (NIV), but if you love you are bound to feel or experience pain at some point in your life. While the connection between God and love is undeniable, the connection between pain and God is not so popular. Yet, where there is love pain may follow, and sometimes we might even wonder whether those two strong emotional states can in fact interact independently from each other. If you love, you will experience pain! If you care, you will grieve.
Our attitude to pain is often shaped by our upbringing, and the environment and society in which we live. I believe that it is better to “let pain happen” rather than to avoid it. This is particularly difficult for men in our society, as they would rather escape or toughen up. From a young age, they have been told that “boys don’t cry”, and in due course to “man up” and not let their emotions show. The suppression of emotions that result from such expectations and social norms can only lead to a wealth of emotional upsets and imbalance and, I believe, can be really unhealthy in the long run in a man’s life.
Grief is not only caused by the loss of a loved one, it can be caused by the loss of a dream, of a job, of a friendship. As I have got older I have experienced many of these. I recently heard of a book called Option B (W.H. Allen) co-written by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer (COO) whose husband died in 2015 after having a heart attack and falling off a treadmill and subsequently suffering brain injury from the fall. In a video promoting her book, Sheryl explains how a few days after her husband’s passing, there happened to be a ‘father-son’ activity. In discussing with a friend who should go with her son to that event, Sheryl could not conceive anyone other than her husband, Dave, to go. She was reminded that option A was no longer available and she had to consider option B. Many of us are living in option B because things didn’t work out how we planned for them to work; relationships break down, people get ill, we all get disappointed.
Everyone reacts differently to life challenges, but it can be a source of strength to know that you are not alone, and that others understand what you’re going through. We need to keep reminding one another that expressing pain, anger and fear is actually perfectly normal, human and healthy, and that God is with us and loves us, no matter what is going on. Being honest about our feelings of grief can really help us through tough times. It is often when disasters occur that communities unite and work together. Consider how people from different background and creed come together to help and save lives in the direst of circumstances, whether it be in the aftermath of an earthquake, a mass shooting as in the US, or any other grand-scale catastrophe.
Sometimes we’d rather numb our pain than look at it or try to deal with it. We’d rather do anything we can to forget it by watching hours of Netflix, take the edge off with a shopping trip or a few glasses of wine. But pain that isn’t dealt with doesn’t disappear, and we can’t ignore it forever. Pain can rob us of the deep joy that God has for us.
If left unchecked, pain and grief can breed further negative emotions such as unforgiveness. Letting go of hate, bitterness and resentment is essential for forgiveness to happen. Forgiving doesn’t mean that what happened doesn’t matter, but having an unforgiving heart can do us more damage for longer. Forgiving is letting go of the thoughts that keep us captive, while not allowing negative emotions to make us a prisoner of the thoughts they arouse. For most of us, it can be a daily choice; we have to be conscious about being forgiving whatever comes our way and however upset or annoyed we might get. Christ sets the best example for each and every one of us in that respect. This is a personal character ideal I am still working on while learning to process things and give myself time in a culture that is far too busy.
When you become aware of pain and of the love of God at the same time and accept both, you can see beauty in most things. You realise that grief isn’t getting over something or someone but getting through a situation.
Over the past ten years, I have watched my dad faithfully visit my nan weekly in her home. I have watched him being involved in the smallest details of her care even though during most of that time, he didn’t have a meaningful conversation with her. I have seen him shouted out and hit by the person he loved and cared for. I have seen him sat in A&E for hours on end knowing that she might not be aware of his presence. That love of always being there, that love expecting nothing in return, that love comes from a deeper place than is humanly explainable. That love is unconditional love. Loving when we are loved back is easy. It does not require much effort on our part, but loving without being loved in return is one of the hardest things.
And while we love, we will grieve. Grief is not something we ever totally erase from our lives or get over. Special occasions in particular such as birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries, often make certain emotions resurface, but as time goes by those memories become less dark in nature.
When you reach that time in your life when you are close to death, the space between life and death consists of a very fine line. At that time, the people around you are those you loved and who love you, whether they were there all along or have disappeared and reappeared, or not, for whatever reasons, and as influenced by busy lives and an overloaded diary…. Recognising that what keeps us alive is meaningful relationships is essential.
As my nan was dying, we gathered at her bedside, believing that despite her lack of response, all she would want at that time was to have the people who loved her there. And so, we continued to talk to her, to hold her hands, and despite her not showing it, believing in our hearts that she knew we loved and cared for her. We wanted her to know and to express to her that she would never be left or forsaken, as it is promised by God in the Bible (Hebrews 13:5).
In my book Honesty Over Silence (CWR), I wrote: “Neither depression, nor anxiety, nor self-harm, neither cancer nor OCD nor an eating disorder, nor Alzheimer’s, nor pain from the past or the present or the future, nor disappointment or shattered dream can stop God loving us.”
In some relationships and friendships “goodbye” means “goodbye” as one season finishes, and a new season starts. I have experienced the pain of that, but in the case of my nan, it is not one of these “goodbyes” that I said to her, but rather a “See you later”.